In the Baptist household where I was raised, my parents made it a point of taking my sisters and me to church almost every Sunday. During those years the lyrics to one particular gospel song really resonated with me: “The Things You Do In The Dark Will Come To The Light.” This song has served to guide my approach to exposing the realities of New York’s prison system. Let me share with you something that has been going on in the dark that should be brought to light.
The horror of the carnage at Attica Prison in 1971 still taints prison reform efforts more than four decades later, and for good reason. Many of the inhumane conditions that compelled the men in Attica to risk their lives in an effort to draw attention to their mistreatment persist throughout the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) system today.
The descriptions of what was recently done to the men housed on Clinton Prison’s honor block seem as if they were lifted from the reports of barbaric, inhumane, and unthinkably torturous acts that were inflicted on the inhabitants of Guántanamo and Abu Ghraib. Plastic bags held over people’s heads and waterboarding were acts condemned by every human rights organization around the globe as torture and yet, in New York’s state correctional system, where almost half of the inmates in custody are African American, according to a DOCCS report, these acts of terror are routinely inflicted by state actors with impunity.
No wonder DOCCS has refused to allow Juan Méndez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, to visit any of its facilities. Just imagine the conclusions he would reach.
In February of this year The New York Times published another story, “A Brutal Beating Wakes Attica’s Ghost” that was astonishing to some, about a brutal beating that had taken place four years ago on Aug.11, 2011, at Attica Correctional Facility. This is where 29-year-old George Williams, an African American from New Jersey serving two to four years for robbing jewelry stores in Manhattan, was so badly assaulted by guards that he suffered two broken legs, broken ribs, a broken eye socket, punctured lung, bruises, lacerations, and numerous other injuries including severe trauma. After the beating, the guards conspired to cover up what they’d done.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) launched an investigation of the Attica assault on Mr. Williams. More recently, the DOJ began an investigation of the Clinton Correctional Facility following the widely-reported escape of Richard Matt and David Sweat in June, and is looking into the death of Mr. Harrell at Fishkill. These investigations are a good start.
However, they must be expanded to a full-blown investigation of the systemic and pervasive culture of violence perpetrated by DOCCS security staff. Less than 100 yards away from Attica is the medium security Wyoming prison. Beatings and cover-ups by DOOCS staff persisted there even after the DOJ commenced its Attica investigation.
In April of this year, two people — both also African American — were allegedly beaten to death within one week by DOCCS staff. Karl Taylor, 52, died following a beating at Sullivan Correctional Facility, and Samuel D. Harrell, 30, was dead after he was brutally assaulted by guards at Fishkill prison. His spine was reportedly broken. Apparently Mr. Taylor and Mr. Harrell were being treated by the Office of Mental Health. DOCCS has yet to release any official report or response to the allegations of murder.
Death by incarceration has become the norm in institutions where the employees are literally getting away with murder and torture. If we as a society have any hope of living in a humane and just society, then we all must demand a complete overhaul of New York’s prison system. Advocates have called for the closure of Attica as a first, and significant step in the effort to bring an end to abuse and violence in New York’s prisons. Before another family is notified that their loved one has mysteriously died while in custody, we must demand a thorough investigation and an immediate halt to all forms of state-sanctioned violence.
Soffiyah Elijah is the Executive Director of the Correctional Association (CA) of New York. She is the first woman and the first person of color to lead this organization in its mission to create a fairer and more humane criminal justice system.